At first, Stillwater coach Traci Swenson didn’t know what she had in Gretchen Sharp.

However, when the quiet, diminutive eighth-grader left her club gymnastics team to join the Ponies, she made a big impact. Sharp was Stillwater’s top gymnast this season and helped the Ponies finish ninth in the final Class 2A rankings.

Sharp had competed for the Twin Cities Twisters since she was 6 years old, but joined Stillwater this year because of a desire to compete for her school.

“She was a surprise,” said Swenson, who is in her 18th year with the Ponies and sixth as head coach. “When someone with the talent Gretchen has walks into the room, it raises the level of everybody and gives them something to aspire to individually and as a team. She’s embraced our group and vice versa.”

In her first season with the Ponies, Sharp qualified for the Class 2A state meet in three events — the beam, floor exercise and vault.

“Making it to state was a highlight,” Sharp said. “It was a goal at the beginning of the season. I’m happy I accomplished it.”

In her first state meet, with teammates cheering her on from the sidelines, Sharp finished ninth in the floor exercise with a 9.45, 11th in the beam with a 9.325 and 21st in the vault with a 9.425.

“It was fun to represent my school and show how hard we’ve been working,” Sharp said.

Swenson said she was “very happy” with Sharp’s state meet performance.

“She’s inspired to improve on what she’s done and her teammates are inspired by what she’s done,” Swenson said.

Stillwater, without a senior in its final lineup, lost only two conference meets this season — to No. 1-ranked Roseville and No. 3-ranked East Ridge — and finished third in the section behind top-ranked Roseville and No. 8 Mahtomedi.

Swenson said her youthful squad is a “tight group” with a bright future.

“They genuinely are best friends,” she said. “That can lead to great things in gymnastics. They’re excited and inspired by what can happen in the future.”

Sharp’s gymnastics career began in Buffalo. When she was 2 years old, her mom — in search of a winter activity — enrolled her in a “Mommy and Me” class.

Her natural ability at that age might have been tough to detect. But through the years, Sharp’s hours of hard work helped her develop into one of the state’s top young gymnasts.

Sharp earned a spot on the Minnesota Gymnastics Coaches Association Elite team this year, based on an average of all-around scores throughout the season. Sharp’s season-best all-around of 37.8 was the sixth-highest reported score for the year. Such a score would have placed her fourth in the event at the Class 2A state meet.

Sharp said she was proud to earn the coaches’ honor.

“It felt special,” she said. “I didn’t realize how good I’d feel about it. I didn’t expect it to happen.”

Swenson said Sharp has exceptional technique and execution in her routines, which have come from her years of high-level club training. Sharp’s beam and floor routines have all the difficulty and bonus points possible, but her bars and vault have room to grow yet.

“She’s really focused for as young as she is,” Swenson said. “That’s really exceptional. She’s delightful to work with and a great teammate. She’s supportive of everyone in the room and is a very hard worker. That’s why she’s as good as she is.”

Sharp was one of just six eighth-graders to compete in the state meet this year. With up to four more years to compete at the high school level, it’s not far-fetched to think a state championship title could be in her future.

“I can only hope for the best success for our kids,” Swenson said. “Is a state championship possible? Sure.”